Let me lay my cards on the table, just so we all know where we are. I have not picked a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, not least because I will not be required to vote in it; an absence of pressure that I like to think has also given me a certain impartiality in analysis. When I tell my friends, most of who do not know anything about John McCain, that I am undecided, they say I must think McCain is really something exceptional to even be considering supporting him with my non-existent vote. I tell them that they are right, that I revere John McCain, but then I tell them the other part of the equation: The reason I am as yet undecided is because I also think Barack Obama is so exceptional. So it was with mixed feelings and an open mind that I sat down to read his book, The Audacity of Hope.
Obama has got everything to prove, and he knows it. "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," he writes in the introduction to this book. He has generated such an enormous amount of hype among Democrats not primarily for the content of his views, but for his obvious electability and skills as a campaigner. There are a great deal of views expressed in this book that liberal Democrats would immediately scorn if they came from the pen of a right-wing politician, but which they will excuse from someone whom they give the benefit of the doubt. This is only natural, but as Obama is all too aware, the consequences could be bleak. "I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them," he notes.
One of the most interesting things about the Obama phenomenon is the extent to which it is rooted in projection. After eight years of George W. Bush, whose presidency is now widely regarded as a disaster, a lot of people are looking for someone who is as deeply different to him as possible. "Anyone But Bush", we called it in 2004. Well, the Democrats found their someone and he wasn't just anyone: he embodies the Party culturally, is a once-in-a-generation campaigner, a professor, a community organizer, and his race confirms the progressive values of the Party and allows them to invoke past glories from the days of the civil rights movement.1 As such, Democrats are inordinately happy.
I say that this is rooted in projection because none of this really has much to do with the actual policies that Obama has said he will pursue, or his record as a legislator. It has to do with what he is: a young, exciting politician that supporters hope can send the Republican Party firmly packing. Compared to this simple goal, his actual ability to be president is almost a side-issue, and hence not one that opponents of Bush - who equate McCain with a continuation of the Bush years - are likely to engage in. But the ferocity and intensity of the Democratic Party's civil war during primary season shows the extent to which there is uncertainty in the Party, not all of which, contrary to some sections of the media, comes from hardcore feminists who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton merely because she was a woman. This uncertainty is based on the very real question, which transcends Bush, of whether Obama is ready not just to campaign, but to lead the United States.
This is why Barack Obama has a lot to prove, and was the source of my ambivalence as I sat down to read his book. I so desperately wanted to find the leavings of a man of substance who had thought long and hard about the issues and who had sound judgement. This is what I found.
One of the themes of Obama's book is the health of America's political process and its democracy. He has the usual targets in his sights - earmarks, logrolling, unfair amendments (think of the Simpsons episode where "Flags for Orphans" was amended to a bill, making it politically impossible for anyone to oppose). Obama wants us to know that he is going to the White House to clean up politics, which is also something that McCain wants us to know about himself, and I must inevitably add that McCain has been actually doing that for more decades than Obama has been talking about it. But I believe Obama, and this is so far uncontroversial, so long as we do not expect revolutionary results.
Obama's main anxiety with regards to the political process is how excessively partisan it has become. He worries that politics is increasingly dictated by partisan talking points and extreme pressure groups, which serve to jar the substance of debate and cloud the minds of those who should be seeking "rational" solutions. He wants Democrats and Republicans to work together in a new era of bipartisanship, in which they spend more time solving America's problems and less time arguing with each other. There is hardly anyone who will not say that in the abstract this sounds like a great idea, but there are a number of problems with it that raise the question of just how far this advances the debate.
"Everyone likes the idea of bipartisanship," Obama writes, and goes on to bemoan the fact it often does not involve "an honest process of give-and-take", but is more often wielded as a buzzword to force acquiescence by the minority party. What he does not say is that this is not some newly-minted evil of the democratic process, but is inherent in it: the point of a two-party democracy is that the parties disagree, and while they are willing to accept rule by the other in exchange for the chance to themselves rule again at some point in the future, something would be profoundly wrong if the minority party simply acquiesced in the views of the other. "Bipartisan" always means "you do what I want you to do", and there is little hope of that changing without a severe narrowing of debate on the most important issues
Another piece of the puzzle which we must consider is the extent to which Obama has actually acted in a bipartisan manner during his time in the Senate. And he has not. Obama voted with his party a whopping 97% of the time he was in the Senate, and the only substantial step across the aisle he has taken to sponsor a bill was on an ethics reform bill that was so uncontroversial that it passed the Senate 98-2. It is easier to work in a bipartisan fashion on technical, non-controversial issues, and much harder to do it on the issues that really matter.
This does not mean Obama is incapable of working across the divide, and I am certain that he wants to. He just hasn't done it yet, partly no doubt because his mind has been on the Oval Office and hence the primary campaign for some time. On the other hand, he does not demonize Republicans. He says in his book, approvingly, that Ronald Reagan "trimmed some of the fat of the liberal welfare state" and he says that he believes in the good intentions of the Bush White House.
The essence of politics is the art of the possible, which means recognizing the legitimate claims of your fellow citizens even if their ideas and desires are radically different from your own. Debate matters, but power also matters, and for as long as the other party commands votes, you must accept it. We do not have the right, and we certainly do not have the luxury, of merely labelling our opponents as crackpots and being done with them. This is why the main problem in the so-called culture wars has been a lack of empathy and understanding, and the tendency to dehumanize one's opponents. And while I am not sure that these sentiments about Bush and Reagan would be shared by the majority of Obama's supporters, I hope the open-mindedness that they indicate in the man himself is more than mere tactical calculation. But then, maybe I am also projecting onto the blank slate.
Obama is clearly at his best on domestic issues, and the chapters of his book that deal with the economy and American society - including race, faith, and family - are the strongest. He knows the issues, he reads books, and he is very much in touch with the needs and fears of the American voter. Of course, his book would emphasize these points because it was written as he girded himself for the primary battle, but these are not qualities that it is easy to fake. And as you read these chapters, it is impossible not to think back to Bill Clinton, whose talent for empathy and intricate knowledge of policy matters were the twin pillars of what success he enjoyed.
Clinton's legendary interest in policy was also part of his undoing because it could often make him unfocused, but I sense that Obama has a much clearer roadmap for how he wants his domestic policy to proceed; so long, of course, as he has the discipline to stick to it. It is clear that the most immediate goal that animates Obama's politics is his realization of the dangers that the American economy - and hence, the American worker - faces in the age of globalization. He is concerned about the middle-class and the working-class workers who are seeing their jobs go offshire, losing their health insurance, seeing their kids go through an under-performing education system, and struggling with rising prices. And he has the figures to back it up.
All the signs indicate that Obama is going to be a domestic policy president in the tradition of his forebears in the party. In an offhand moment, Bill Clinton remarked that "foreign policy is not what I came here to do", and I think we can assume that the same remark might be made, in an equally offhand moment, by a hypothetical President Obama. His priorities are reforming the education system, working towards energy independence, universal health care, and reforming the labour market to cope with the pressures of globalization.
He admits to not having an economic "blueprint" - and we would be worried if he claimed to - but he has clearly thought most deeply of all about these particular issues, and this stands him in good stead against an opponent who admits to not being very well versed in them. In an election that is so focused on economic issues, insofar as it is focused on any issues at all, this gives Obama a great advantage over an opponent who states quite honestly that economics is not his strong point. The housing market crisis and unemployment indicate grave problems with the American economy, and Obama will be focused on fixing it; whether the cure would be better than the disease is of course a question I leave open to one's ideological predilections.
But what is certain is that Obama's domestic progamme would cost a lot of money. It seems unlikely that it all can raised from restructuring the tax code, and it throws into question his view of American commitments overseas. It certainly seems to be the case that America needs to get its domestic house in order, and if Obama wins in November then it will be in no small part because he is perceived to be strongest on domestic issues. Americans will get a president focused on these issues. But there is no God-given assurance that such a president will be given the luxury to pursue them by the outside world, and it is likely that a period of perceived American retrenchment will bring a reaction from the outside world. If a U.S. president doesn't "do" foreign policy, it will "do" him.
Hence, the chapter of the book on international affairs was the one I was most interested in because I have severe doubts about Obama's credibility on international issues. Doubts which, unfortunately, this book did nothing to assuage. It is not just that Obama prefers not to talk about international issues - which is understandable, as they are a traditionally weak area for his party and not a central one in this election - it is that I see numerous signs that he has simply not thought about them or recognized their importance. There have been things he has said - about bombing Pakistan, about Jerusalem remaining the "undivided capital" of Israel - which set me on edge.2 And I'm afraid the book did little to help.
Firstly, there is the matter of Iraq. In the book, he is bold enough to admit that he had doubts about his initial opposition to the war when it seemed to be coming to a rapid conclusion in mid-to-late 2003. But by 2005, when he visited Iraq, he was reaffirmed in his initial opposition. He describes a meeting with journalists, in which he is "surprised" to hear them say that they think that if U.S. troops withdraw, the country will fall apart. Anyone who had actually been paying attention to what was happening in Iraq in 2005 rather than just hewing to their partisan position would have realized this, but it "surprised" Barack Obama.
This may seem a minor point, but it is a fairly major part of a litany of misunderstanding of what is going on in the world beyond America's border. This misunderstanding is clearly not grounded in stupidity, but one cannot help but get the impression that Obama has simply not applied his agile mind to these issues fully, which he rather views as wedges with which to motivate his base. I think one of the main problems with American politics today is that the two parties are not engaged in quite the same conversation, because they are focused on different issues. Because the Republicans tend to believe economy and society can look after themselves, they focus on security and foreign affairs; but because the Democrats tend to think the rest of the world can look after itself and that it is American society itself that requires intervention, they often misunderstand the exact nature of America's relationship with the rest of the world and the burdens that the U.S. must bear in managing it.
Let's be clear: my main complaint about Obama's views on foreign affairs is not that he is too weak or too stupid or too French, but that he simply has not thought them through. He does not seem to realize the urgency. Bush's foreign policy is so widely viewed as a disaster that he has not been required to engage in a serious exposition of his alternative. Your views on the likely foreign policy of John McCain do not excuse you from making an honest assessment of Obama's, either.
As another example, calling for "guiding principles" in foreign policy, Obama suggests that we provide an answer to the question "why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma?", repeating what I am sure is a staple of high school debating class but is little more than sophistry in the real world, where we clearly cannot generalize about ends ("guiding principles") in this manner because we do not have the means to invade and democratize every country even if we wanted to. This of course leaves us with the necessity of choice, and the reasons for this particular choice are a matter of the public record, whether one agrees with them or not; Obama's argument is hence circular and contributes nothing to the debate.
A coherent foreign policy is fundamentally about the relationship of limited means to desired ends, which is why the invocation of diplomacy and multilateralism as a foreign policy strategy in and of themselves justly invokes scorn, because these things are means and not ends. They reflect the desire to reduce foreign policy questions to the managaebility of domestic problems, which is nothing but an escape from reality. I want to believe that Obama, who studied international relations as an undergraduate, understands this, and he merely realizes that the public do not want to hear detail on foreign policy at this time and so he avoids it. And yet there seems little reason that he could not have written a stronger chapter on the subject if this was the case.
I put down this book with the strong suspicion that the real hole in the Obama promise lies somewhere here: This man, who promises to transform the American economy and focus on his own people, does not seem to have fully considered the fact that the rest of the world might encroach on his plans. He makes virtually no mention of Russia, which looks highly unfortunate in the aftermath of the recent war; his optimism about the future of the post-Soviet countries, which he does express in this book, certainly indicates a rosy reading of reality.
Supporters who invoke the comparison to JFK might do well to remember that it was their hero's perceived weakness that led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis and ponder just who the Kremlin are rooting for in this election, and what they might do in a world where America has turned inward. And because this world is so globalized, and so much of Obama's domestic policy is based on this globalization, he needs to realize that Europe's future, and the Middle East's future, are inextricably bound up with his own.
As its relative power declines, the United States faces a choice. Eventually it will have to retrench, withdraw from the world, and focus on its own; an ageing population, an emerging multipolar world, and democracy's increasing aversion to war dictate it. The man who wanted to pull troops out of Iraq regardless of the consequences - and who may now be able to do so due to the policies he opposed - is an instrument of this process, not its opponent. Your view on the desirability of this is your own and I cannot affect it, although without a strong economic base America would be useless in the world anyway. One thing I can virtually guarantee is that one day Obama is going to get that 3am phone call so beloved of Republican campaign ads, but what I cannot guarantee is the wisdom of his response.
But I also know that Americans are tired of their domestic situation and tired of being called upon to solve the problems of the world. I have no right to tell them to feel otherwise, but I do have the right to remind them why America became so involved in the rest of the world to begin with: because their ancestors realized that what happened in the rest of the world was intimately related to what happened to America and allowed it to remain free. Implicit in the Obama promise is that he has the understanding and the guts for the outside world as well as the empathy and understanding for the world within America's borders. And we want to believe him. This is the true meaning of the "audacity of hope".
1. The first black presidential candidate, incidentally, had to be near-perfect to get to this point; as Obama knows, black politicians are constantly and perhaps subconsciously scanned for any hint of the "politics of resentment" or moral flaw that would make them unacceptable to white voters. That they begin with this original sin that they must expunge speaks of the subtle racism that faces the black public figure.
2. In his first speech after winning the nomination, Obama told the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, in a prepared speech, that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided". No U.S. presidential candidate has ever made such an avowedly Zionist statement, and every serious observer of the conflict outside of Israel recognizes that the final status of Jerusalem has to be determined by negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama retracted the statement and hewed to this conventional line some days later, but the damage was done. The damage, of course, was not that he had shown himself to be an ultra-Zionist - which he had not - but that he could send confused and conflicting messages on such a basic matter.